The many facets of Keffiyeh Symbolization

In an era of heightened capitalism and nationalism, US tech giant Google finds itself in the middle of another political storm – this time in the Middle East. The search engine’s identification and association of Keffiyeh with terrorism has sent shock waves throughout the Arab world.

History of Symbolization

Keffiyeh, an easily identifiable cloth with its unique black and white cheque patterns is said to find its origins in Mesopotamia. The civilization of Sumerians and Babylonians in West Asia around 3100 BC crafted this cloth which was mainly a symbol of high rank and honor. It was restricted to the priestly class (or rather rulers) who also formed the most elite section of society. The symbolism associated with the cloth underwent a drastic change as it crept into the dressings or everyday men including peasants who worked on the field and travelers who had to face the harsh weather conditions.

The journey of Keffiyeh as a symbol of resistance and Palestinian movement started during the British mandate. In 1936, as the Arab revolt increased in its tenacity, the cloth was used to cover faces in order to avoid recognition and thereafter arrest. After the British banned the use of Keffiyeh altogether, masses responded with everyone wearing it which made it harder to identify rebels and thus the symbol came to be associated with rebellion. The late Palestinian leader and President Yassir Arafat had a huge influence in this regard. He along with the resistance movement solidified the cloth connection especially during the First Intifada and Second Intifada in 1987 and 2000, respectively.

Keffiyeh continues to be associated as the main symbol of Palestinian movement and demand for a just Palestine. Outside the Gaza and West Bank, the cloth is associated as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

The Fashion Link

Keffiyeh has made headlines for two simultaneous reasons. First the launch of Keffiyeh inspired scarf by Louis Vitton has set critiques, civil societies and pro-Palestinian groups to unleash a founded response. Social Media influencers, fashion critiques and people in general are calling out big brands such as LV for their irrational use and abuse of symbols. The timing of the unveiling of this new product coincided with the air and missile strikes going back and forth between Palestine and Israel.

The appropriation of Keffiyeh as a “desert scarf” has led to a public outcry which is pressuring LV and other celebrities to take note of the importance of the cloth. The criticism also follows the numbness and silence of the fashion industry on the ongoing human rights violations in war-stricken areas around the globe while using parts of their cultures to increase their sales and popularity. The continued cultural appropriation of the cloth indicates to a removal of the context in which a symbol came into existence. However, the more worrying sign of such acts is that it indicates the deafness of certain societies and groups and their ingrained entitlement.

What does Google have to do with this?

Amidst a fashion industry controversy, Google finds itself in an algorithmic mess. The search engine cropped up results of keffiyeh when searched for symbols associated with terrorism. Google and Amazon recently also signed a multi-billion-dollar deal with Israel to provide cloud services to both the civilians and Israeli military. The business deal along with this troubling algorithm has faced severe backlash as both together represent US foreign policy and attitude towards Palestinian cause. Google and Amazon employees wrote open letters against the signing of the deal owing to the war crimes and associated charges of human rights violations and illegal occupation against Israel. Till now Google has not responded to the allegations surrounding their algorithms and search engine.